DANCE / Scratch that makes you itch: Judith Mackrell on a triple bill by the Berlin Ballet at the London Coliseum

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The Independent Culture
BILL T JONES and his collaborators have raided the dark recesses of the Berlin Ballet's wardrobe, its catalogue of classical music tapes and its full repertoire of steps to create the ultimate non-committal post-modern dance.

Die Offnung, or 'The Opening', begins - many times - with a succession of scratched together musical overtures (the whole music collage by John Oswald ranges from Handel to Debussy) and 25 dancers advance downstage to adopt various elegant, anticipatory sculpted poses. You might mistake these first few seconds for traditional balletic froth, given that the women are in white tutus or tulle, and most of the men are in 18th-century jackets and wigs. But then crashing through the formal line-up comes a barefooted couple in scarlet and black, whose movement is peremptorily modern. And after that more and more details go amiss.

One by one the dancers start re-entering in inappropriate dress. A nurse appears, a cyclist, a bald-headed woman and what may or may not be a transvestite. The movement too fails increasingly to stick with classical decorum. Women with their feet perfectly pointed shove their hands hoydenishly on their hips and the final blow to academic nicety comes when the black-and-scarlet couple kiss greedily while other dancers po-facedly conduct a wedding march upstage.

The piece ends as it began - many times - a single closing chord feeding the dancers with endless opportunities for bows, obeisances and farewells. What Jones is basically giving us is a pleasantly joky, sometimes sharp mix of dance characters, styles and periods - history as a giant bran-tub which the choreographer can dip in and out of at will. And if the politics doesn't much impress in all this, nor ultimately do Jones's own wit and invention. As a deconstructor of the ballet vocabulary, as an intrepid raider of both modern and classical forms, he is certainly no match for an Ashley Page or a William Forsyth. And because the dancers themselves have trouble getting their feet around some of the more chaotic flurries of movement, a few of the good jokes are unnecessarily hard to spot.

One of the choreographers most respected as dance's political conscience is Christopher Bruce, whose 1987 work Swansong has recently been taken into the Berlin repertoire. This compressed and subtle study of interrogation and torture was danced with harrowing pathos on Monday night by Koen Onzia - with Marek Rozycki and Kris Konoo as slick and evil guards.

After the detail and humanity of Bruce's work, though, you didn't know whether to laugh or cry at Maurice Bejart's brutish 1959 version of Le Sacre du Printemps. It's partly what he does to the music that offends, bludgeoning its hair-raising, complex rhythms into crassly repetitive gestures. It's partly his vision of sex. A herd of men flex their biceps and pound the stage succeeded by a group of women who lie with their legs splayed and pelvises cocked. As the piece bumps and grinds towards its climax, The Chosen Man and Woman approach their own individual sacrificial rite - which being Bejart turns out to be a long and agonised rut. The half of the audience which loved the piece roared their approval. The other half sent up a silent prayer of thanks that they might never see this ballet again. Bejart, for his own reasons, is withdrawing all his choreography from circulation for the next few years.

Tonight at the Coliseum, London WC2 (071-836 3161)

(Photograph omitted)

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